— As the U.S. Air Force moves forward with the development and acquisition of small satellites and rockets under its
space (ORS) effort, Pentagon leadership has given the service a mandate to find a variety of partners for cooperation.
The mandate came from the “Plan for Operationally Responsive Space,” which was signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in April and instructs the Air Force to find ways to work with its reserve components, the intelligence community
and civil organizations like NASA.
Such cooperation could provide significant benefit to the Air Force, as well as its potential partners. However,
in each case explored so far the discussions have not
yet gone beyond the stage of
according to Col. Robert R. Walker, chief of the ORS division at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Walker noted Aug. 1 in a written response to questions
that Air Force Space Command and NASA have a long history of partnership and cooperation on both satellite and rocket work that will continue with ORS.
While specific avenues of collaboration between the two organizations have not yet been defined, Walker said that “cooperation in this area would be in the best interest of our organizations and the American people as we strive to deliver affordable and responsive launch capability to the joint force commander.”
A NASA source noted that the civil agency does not share the Pentagon’s need for rockets and payloads that can launch on short notice, and that the military lacks NASA’s requirements for human rating of launch vehicles, but that common ground could be found in other areas.
In addition to joint development work, ORS could expand the number of options for rockets or satellite platforms that could have application to NASA missions like small explorer class vehicles, the NASA source said. NASA and the Air Force could work together to bring down the cost of these rockets and platforms to both organizations through joint purchases or even simply providing a larger customer base, the source said.
If the Air Force opts to begin using aircraft-based small launchers like the concept under development with AirLaunch LLC of Kirkland, Wash.,
the two agencies could share use of aircraft, the NASA source said. An AirLaunch flight demonstration is scheduled to take place around 2009.
NASA and the Air Force
also could find ways to share infrastructure costs for a variety of purposes at the ranges including launch pads, runways and security, the NASA source said.
Other potential upsides for the Air Force from working with NASA on small satellites and rockets could include benefiting from the civil agency’s culture, according to a congressional aide. While the Air Force and military in general, are
no stranger to developing new systems and technology, NASA
historically has tolerated more risk in science and technology work, the aide said.
Risk tolerance is an important part of the ORS effort, which seeks to allow more risk in order to bring down the cost of rockets and satellites so that they can be used more frequently, the aide said.
Other areas where cooperation could provide benefit for the Air Force include exchanging ideas with the intelligence community, Walker said. Some coordination in this area regarding ORS has begun, he said.
While no formal agreements with intelligence agencies have been established, the Air Force and intelligence community could share lessons learned; tactics, techniques and procedures for commanding small satellites; and ways to process, exploit
and disseminate data from overhead, Walker said.
the Air Force is in the early phases of determining what unique capabilities
its reserve components could bring to the table for ORS. He noted that peacetime use of ORS
likely will be “relatively low,” but that the military will need to be ready to surge to meet wartime needs, a role that those components may be well suited to handle.
In the area of potential work with academia, the Air Force
likely will find ORS-focused science and technology partnerships on maturing cutting-edge technology that can build on the service’s existing collaboration with those institutions, Walker said.
“As technologies are matured it is likely that academic institutions will have roles in furthering this process,” Walked said. “ORS, and the small satellites, which enable its application, have the potential added benefit of inspiring a space renaissance in academia.”
While Walker did not elaborate on the benefits that ORS could provide to academia, congressional aides who support the ORS effort have said that the military funded advancements to bring down the cost of launch for small payloads could help researchers find opportunities for launches that
otherwise would be unaffordable.